Saturday, June 25, 2011

Planting Potatoes



Even though my family lives in a five-story apartment block in the middle of a mile-long stretch of identical five-story apartment blocks, we still have a family garden. Our patch of land is a good 15 minute walk from our home, and was assigned to our family when they were given their apartment by the government. Nearly everyone in Kazakhstan has some piece of ground where they can grow basic foodstuffs, and although not everyone bothers to tend to theirs, keeping a vegetable garden is very common. Fresh vegetables are expensive here, and growing your own is an economical solution. Also, the memory of empty store shelves during Perestroika prompts even well-to-do families to ensure a reliable source of food.

Most people use their gardens for the basics: mainly potatoes, with some onions, beets and carrots. People like my family, whose garden is far from their home, plant only potatoes because they need no watering or tending. In northern Kazakhstan, potatoes should be planted in mid-May. And so on one warm and sunny day my host mom, sister, and I headed out to the garden to prepare for next winter's stock of food. I called the new volunteer in my village, Michele, and invited her to come along for the “cultural” experience.

Luckily, we have some family friend with a rototiller, or something of the sort, and he had prepared the ground for us ahead of time. My host mom cut all the potatoes in half, and then began the long process of putting each of those in a hole in the ground. We planted the potatoes in rows, not mounds, and took break midway through for tea. This was definitely the best part of the afternoon. Kazakhs know how to make any work enjoyable. First, we sang songs while working, and told stories. Then, just as our backs were beginning to complain, my mom stopped us all and called us over for a picnic in the grass. She had brought along a samovar, a Russian contraption for boiling water. A samovar is a metal canister where you put water, and it has a pipe in the middle where burning twigs are put to heat up the water surrounding it. Once the water is hot, there's a little spout at the bottom of the samovar for you to fill up your tea cup. But “tea” never involves just tea; our picnic also included bread, sausage, cucumbers, cookies and candies.

After tea we finished planting our patch of potatoes. Unfortunately, I won't be around this fall to harvest them, although I did get to help last year. Last summer was especially dry, and so we only got a measly one and a half bags out of our entire garden. When you consider that we got 38 bags the year before, you realize why we didn't eat very many potatoes this last winter. This summer has already been quite wet, however, so we should have a large harvest this fall. Considering how much work planting those potatoes was, maybe I'm glad I won't be around to dig them out of the ground!

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